Jacobin / May 25, 2023
On this day in 2000, popular resistance forced Israel to abandon its nearly two-decade-long occupation of southern Lebanon. It showed that Israel is not invincible – and provided valuable lessons for the Palestinians.
May 25 marks the anniversary of the liberation of Lebanon’s territory, ending an almost two-decade Israeli occupation of the south of the country.
To this day there remains considerable pride that groups of well-organized Lebanese — tired of the injury and loss under yet another illegal Israeli occupation — successfully ejected one of the most modern, lavishly funded and reputedly best-organized militaries on Earth. Populations in southern Lebanon suffered immeasurable damage under a constant threat of detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and the many other patterns of Israeli behavior still carried out in its military occupation in Palestine.
Today, a comprehensive museum to the Lebanese liberation, set up at the picturesque, central mountain village of Mlita, displays a collection of the nail bombs, land mines, and illegal cluster munitions that the Israelis used nearby in efforts to maintain their occupation. Yet this was all without success — and Lebanese resistance instead offered a further example in the global body of evidence that there is no force more potent than a people defending its homeland.
A unifying moment for this country, its struggle is also inseparable from the cause of Palestine. The Israeli occupation was primarily an effort to crush a society that had offered solidarity, and also shelter, to those Palestinian refugees and resistance that fled Israeli perpetration of the Nakba in 1948. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was based in Lebanon until the Israeli invasion, whereupon it moved to Tunisia, a relocation that in turn unleashed fresh Israeli attacks against Tunis.
Nor was that liberation twenty-three years ago the end of Israeli interference in Lebanon. Because a war in 2006 saw Israel attempt another brutal invasion, complete with the bombing of Beirut, rather than enter into negotiations for Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, after Israeli soldiers were also captured near the border.
Lebanese are still today left to suffer the constant trauma of flyovers, “buzzed” by Israeli warplanes on their way to attack targets, particularly in Syria, where the Israelis also still maintain their illegal occupation of the Golan Heights. Moreover, after the awful 2020 explosion at Beirut Port, Lebanon is still awash with rumors that the official story does not stack up — with possible Israeli involvement one theory being considered by investigators.
Memories, too, persist. None have forgotten the Israeli support of far-right Christian militias within Lebanon, the Phalanges most notorious among them, who carried out repeat atrocities during Lebanon’s civil war, including — behind the protection of an Israeli military cordon — the 1982 massacres of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. This cynical Israeli effort in divide and rule is prominent among the causes of the sectarianism under which Lebanon has struggled, a division that is only now beginning to give way to a singular Lebanese national identity.
But for all the history, economic crisis, and enduring problems of having Israel as a neighbor, there is a cautious optimism about the state of affairs. Though Lebanon does not recognize Israel, and the countries are officially still at war, a deal last year to delineate a maritime boundary in the Mediterranean should give the near-bankrupt Lebanese economy a lifeline in the form of Lebanese gas reserves that have until now been — true to form — appropriated by the Israelis.
The deal was struck after Hezbollah flew an unarmed reconnaissance drone toward the Israeli gas field, Karish — a measured act of threat-signaling that cuts against regular Western depictions of the group as recklessly violent. Crucially for Lebanon — particularly those in southern regions who bore the brunt of Israeli occupation — the episode shows a new state of deterrence existing between the two countries, preventing the threat of further Israeli occupation, but also showing Tel Aviv that Lebanon has the ability to impose costs upon it in the event of further Israeli violations. US sanctions continue to exacerbate corruption and internal divisions within Lebanese society and economy, helped gladly by a corrupt local elite, but just two decades since liberation, internal security from the Israeli threat is not taken for granted.
While that liberation was a hard-earned victory for Lebanon, its lessons travel well. Western interest in the Palestinian struggle, particularly perhaps in younger generations who were not alive when Lebanon successfully ousted the Israelis, can tend to fixate narrowly on the Palestinian territory still under Israeli occupation, or the injustices meted out against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Greater awareness of Lebanon’s liberation is helpful here in multiple respects.
Firstly, in driving home the fact that the Israeli project sought to occupy all the way to Beirut (as well as across Sinai in Egypt), its cross-border, expansionist and in all ways illegal modus operandi is more apparent than by looking at only Palestine and Israeli methods deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. In a time of heightened global attention to international law and Ukrainian territorial integrity, the Israeli gusto for cross-border annexations cannot be overstated.
Secondly, it is helpful to understand that many Zionists do sincerely — if not legitimately — feel that the territory Israelis now claim, including the obvious Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, is a small amount next to the greater swathes that the Israeli military has previously occupied. The grievance is not valid, but it exists, and grievance can be a potent motivating force.
Moreover, Western interest in Palestine needs to pay attention to Lebanese liberation because Lebanon remains a firm friend to the Palestinians. Its population retains a wide and deep social empathy with what Palestinians suffer under the Israelis, because they very recently were made to suffer the same.
The Lebanese conviction to take matters of liberation into their own hands is also indicative of the fact that people cannot wait for anybody to come and save them. Western influence has, to say the least, done little to limit Israeli aggression and crimes, and no one should be chided for refusing to submit to a supposed peace process that sees their homeland daily destroyed.
Lastly, and most crucially, the anniversary of Lebanese liberation from Israeli occupation should be recognized quite simply because it was a victory. In this, the very fact forms an important reminder of an arc of history that, while it always needs pushing, will be bent toward justice.
Julian Sayarer is an author and journalist; his latest book is Fifty Miles Wide: Cycling Through Israel and Palestine (Arcadia, 2020)